Newcastle Falcons are ready for a clean slate, as they are set to embark on their 2023/24 Challenge Cup campaign this Sunday. After eight consecutive defeats in an exhaustive start to their Premiership campaign, the Falcons are looking to freshen up their approach, as they host Montpellier at Kingston Park.
Montpellier have had a similarly disappointing start to their 2023/24 Top 14 season, as despite being amongst the league’s biggest spenders over the Summer, the Southern France side have failed to generate results on the pitch. Montpellier have bolstered their squad with the likes of former Exeter Chiefs duo Harry Williams and Sam Simmonds, yet like Newcastle, sit at the bottom of their respective division.
Interestingly, Montpellier recorded their sole win of the season so far against reigning Champions Cup holders La Rochelle. However, this match came at the height of the Rugby World Cup, with Ronan O’Gara’s squad heavily depleted, with his top talents away with Les Bleus and other nations. Montpellier mirror the Falcons record of eight league losses so far, and Newcastle Forwards Coach Micky Ward believes that this is an opportune fixture, for a winning re-set up in the North East.
“It’s a good opportunity to try and push in the competition and possibly get to the next round of the competition. As you say, it’s a clean slate in the sense of it’s something different, that was the same with the Premiership Cup at the start of the year. It’s just nice, bit of a different challenge, get your teeth into something, and really, you’ve got three games, if we win three games, we can get ourselves in a good position to push on to the next round. That then builds a lot of confidence within the club to transfer back into the Premiership.”
“They’ve got an outstanding squad as you say, which I was talking about with some of the forwards this morning. If you’re looking at them, even the tight-heads. It’s funny isn’t it, they’ve got outstanding squad, they’ve got some great players, but they haven’t had it all their own way this year. They’ve had a poor start, as you say. ‘Cockers’ (Richard Cockerill) has left, he’s a good bloke, but unfortunately, he’s been given the bullet, and they’ve brought somebody else in.
“We don’t quite know what they’re going to come with, because, are they’re going to stick with all their big guns and try and get a bit of momentum. Or are they going to want to have a bit of a break, and a bit of a refresh, and they don’t send some of their big stars across. we’re not sure what’s going to come, were focussing on ourselves quite a bit, we’ve got a rough idea of what type of mentality they’ll come with, and what they’ll be like from a team point of view. Whereas for individuals, when we’re not too sure, because as you said, their in a bit of a transition period at the moment.”
Despite this ambiguity regarding Montpellier’s team selection, there is no doubt plenty of available talents that could make the journey across the English Channel. Falcon’s Forwards Coach Ward has kept a keen eye on the Montpellierain pack, with and is more than familiar with the talents of former Exeter tight-head Harry Williams. The 32-year-old made his first appearence of the season last weekend against Bayonne, after a delayed start to his life at the GGL Stadium.
“We’ve played against Harry on numerous occasions. Obviously he’s at the top end, top end to have as a prop, he was at Exeter for a number of years, and the likes of (Adam) Brocklebank have played against him on numerous occasions.
“He’s a big lump of a guy. He’s a good solid scrummager. You know, we’ve just got to make sure we get stuck into him from the start, with all of the team. You know, they’ve all got across the board, they’re big, they’re powerful, they’re aggressive, we just want to make sure we just don’t sit and come at once, we’re going to make sure we got them.
“Been watching a bit, and Harry hasn’t actually played a great deal this year for them, as much as I thought he would have. But yeah, a lot of the lads obviously know him, they’ve played against him over the years haven’t they.”
There is an exciting battle within the back-row for this match, as Montpellier’s Sam Simmonds lines-up against Falcons captain Callum Chick. The well-matched players bring a similar approach to their game, as they are both equally adapt number eights when it comes to the power game, yet can also distribute the ball with neat offloads in contact. However, Simmonds’ international tenure succeeds that of Chick, with the Falcon running out three England caps, compared to Simmond’s 19 England tests, and one British and Irish Lions appearence.
Speaking on what could be a key battle within this Challenge Cup war, Micky Ward discussed the similarities between the two attritional number eights.
“They’re both really similar players aren’t they, they are both quick, run really good lines, good ball carriers, that type of thing. So, you know, Chick’s had numerous battles with him over the years, obviously, a lot of people have spoken about them both being quite similar when they were in contention for England. Over the last couple of years, people have chatted about that.
“You know, they’ve had a couple of good battles over the years, down in Exeter, up at this place, when he was playing for the Chiefs. You look at ‘Chicky’, he’s a top end professional, Chick will rise to the challenge. These are the challenges for ‘Chicky’, going up against someone like him, I’ve got no doubt that Chick will rise to the challenge, and he’ll be spot on for the day.”
Following this battle with Montpellier, Newcastle Falcons make the trip down to South Africa for a Challenge Cup run-in with the Emirates Lions. Despite not looking past his opponents for the weekend, Ward admits that excitement is building for this Southern Hemisphere trip in a week’s time. However, there will be some tough decisions to make regarding selection, as the Falcons have a five day turnaround after the Lions, before they take on Bristol Bears in the Premiership.
“It’s an interesting one, for those of us that are going. Because obviously, we’re going to South Africa, and then we come back from South Africa and we’ve got Bristol at home on the Friday. So there’s a lot of things that we’ve got to look at, that Alex (Codling) and the team have got to look at, for what we’re going to do moving forward from that side of things.
“But to get the opportunity to go across to South Africa, and play across there is great. We are there for pretty much the week. There’s been a lot of chat about it, and a lot of the lads are looking forward to going across there. But it’s not just on the training side of things, it’s being across, you know, a different claims, different environments, stuff like that.
“So it’s quite exciting. But there’s a bit more that goes into it, because obviously John Stokoe our Team Manager, has had to do a lot of work around the logistical side of things, and just getting everything in place. Obviously not as easy as going across to France, or going down to Saracens or somewhere like that. Then obviously, as I mentioned, it’s the stuff of coming back on the Monday, with the view to playing Bristol on Friday. So there’s all different things that I’ve got to go in, but no everyone’s looking forward to it.”